How Bernie Sanders Created an Army of Leaders

A speaker at a Democratic rally I was at once said that people want to get involved. They’re just waiting on their marching orders, so the challenge for leadership is to step up and give the masses the orders they crave. In a nutshell, that statement tells you all you need to know about the establishment’s philosophy about leadership. Leadership exists, in their view,  to direct an army of uncritical followers who need their leaders to tell them what to do.

Bernie Sanders did something with his campaign that was completely different. He didn’t give us marching orders. He laid out the complex problems before us. He told us that he couldn’t solve them on his own. Then he suggested some tools for us to use in the fight and told us he was depending on us to use them.  And that’s how he inspired the kind of ferociously loyal following that most establishment politicians can only dream of. It’s also how he empowered those followers to become independent agents of his political revolution.

You might ask, how does that even work? Let me explain this from the perspective of an educator. In a classroom, one manifestation of a teacher’s low expectations is when they think kids can’t figure out a problem on their own. So the teacher gives them relatively low level tasks which they walk the students through step by step. The result of that is students who are not only bored but also disempowered. If I, as a teacher, don’t believe they’re capable of performing cognitively challenging tasks, why should they? This creates a self-perpetuating cycle that is really at the heart of a lot of our problems in education.

In contrast, if the teacher truly believes that students are smart enough to engage with difficult concepts, he/she gives them tough problems and tools, then lets the kids figure it out themselves.  And a funny thing happens when teachers do that. Students stop asking the teacher for the answers and start figuring answers out for themselves. They become independent. They become critical thinkers. They become forces to be reckoned with. And because you’ve given them a power they didn’t know they had, they ultimately love you for it.

That’s what Bernie did with his supporters. And the criticism the establishment leveled against him- that he only talked about the problems, and that he didn’t have a clear answer for how to solve them- was actually his greatest strength. It’s exactly the reason he was able to mobilize millions to stand up and fight not just for him, but for all of us.

The establishment view of leadership also explains why they thought that defeating Bernie Sanders would cause us to fall in line or simply go away. If you remove the general, the troops start following a new leader or put down their weapons and go home, right? Tell your people to vote for Hillary, they said to him. We don’t need you anyway, they said to us. Under the rules of the game that the establishment plays, this would have worked out for them. Unfortunately for all of us, it did not.

My hope as we move forward is that we understand that this is our strength. Bernie believed in us so we believed in ourselves. Bernie gave us power so we claimed it. Along with each other, this is the greatest gift he gave us.

Let’s be grateful that he had high expectations for us and pay it forward by having high expectations of our fellow citizens. The world no longer needs traditional leaders who depend on having a mass of uncritical followers. Instead we need leaders who do everything they can-in their own way and in their own place- to educate people about the complex problems we’re facing. Who tell those people that we need their help to solve them. Then send them out to be leaders themselves.

In a recent interview with Trent Champ, he told me his motto for successful organizing. I heard that motto echoed in Keith Ellison’s speech yesterday at a rally in Illinois. “Each one. Reach one.” Let’s let that be the motto of our political revolution.

 

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